PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Gary Woodland has always been one tough hombre.
There was the time in high school basketball when he took a charge, absorbed a knee to the throat and suffered a collapsed trachea. He was stretched out and taken to the hospital. Three days later, unfazed, he dropped 20 points on his next opponent.
And there was the time in college when, before his team’s big game against No. 1-ranked Kansas, he broke a finger in practice. Rather than sit out against his dream school, Woodland instead taped two fingers together, continued to scrap for loose balls and tried to give future NBA player Kirk Hinrich hell.
“He’s played through every injury ever,” said his mother, Linda. “He never quits.”
But there were real-world examples, too, the kind that tested his mettle and shook his foundation and eventually shaped him as a man. Like the time in March 2017, when Woodland revealed that his wife, Gabby, who was carrying twins, had lost one of the babies, a girl, because of complications. His son, Jaxson, arrived 10 weeks premature and, weighing just three pounds, required a 40-day stay in the intensive-care unit before he could go home. Healthy and happy, Jaxson turns 2 next Sunday.
“They had to be strong for him,” Linda said, “and they were.”
Toughness has long defined Woodland’s life and professional career, and so after all of the contenders and the shots and the adversity he faced here Sunday at the 119th United States Open, of course he stood tall. Because he always has.
He dusted his U.S. Open-winning playing partner, Justin Rose.
He denied Brooks Koepka's historic pursuit of a three-peat.
And on a cool, raw day here at Pebble Beach, Woodland accessed that trademark grit and struck the clutch shots: hacking out the cabbage to save par on the 11th hole; hammering a 264-yard 3-wood over the front bunker on 14; and on the 71st hole, with a narrow lead, perfectly nipping a 64-degree wedge off the tight Poa annua green with Stillwater Cove looming.
When it was all over, when Woodland won by three and broke through for his first major, one of the first to congratulate him was his father, Dan, who had helped guide him through the pain of the past two years.
“Happy Father’s Day,” Woodland said, going in for a hug.
“I love you,” Dan replied. “You earned it.”
Keeping tabs at home in Delray Beach, Florida, was Gabby, now 29 weeks pregnant with identical twin girls. (She’s due the first week of August.) Shortly before 11 p.m. ET, in a police escort on his way to the winner’s news conference, Woodland FaceTimed his wife. She usually heads to bed by 8 but stayed up until the end, all the way until Woodland rolled in his closing 30-footer for birdie and raised his arms in triumph.
“I told her it was more surprising that she was awake than it was that I won,” he said with a laugh.
At lunch on Sunday, Linda had noticed a newfound calmness. Sure, Woodland, 35, had always had a presence about him – his thick shoulders and square jaw and jock swagger making him a sort of kinder, gentler, less cutthroat Koepka – but there was something different in the last few hours before the final round. “He just seemed so mature all of a sudden,” she said. “I just think he’s at that point in his life that he’s ready to be at the top and be a dad. He’s just a good man.”
A good man whose family has been challenged in ways that only those who have gone through a miscarriage can relate. In the weeks and months after the heartbreaking announcement, Woodland received dozens of texts and emails from people sharing their condolences and support and experiences. It made him feel like he wasn’t alone.
“They really spiraled for a little while,” Linda said, “but their love and devotion together, they pulled through it.”
The golf course wasn’t much of a refuge that year, as Woodland grappled with the emotions of not only losing his firstborn child but also the guilt of playing on the PGA Tour while Jaxson stayed in the ICU for more than two months.
Professionally, too, Woodland had reached a crossroads. For years he was viewed as an extravagantly talented tease, as an athlete who had all of the raw power but none of the finesse required to win golf’s biggest events. To wit: He failed to record a top-10 in his first 27 major starts. “It’s not something that you’re proud of,” he said.
But the late bloomer's work progressed with swing coach Butch Harmon. He sharpened his short game with coach-to-the-European-stars Pete Cowen. He hooked up with putting guru Phil Kenyon. Then came the drought-busting win at the 2018 Phoenix Open, where after tapping in Woodland pointed to the sky – a tribute to Gabby and the daughter they lost – and then held Jaxson during the interview on the 18th green. “He’s a miracle,” he said then. “It puts it all in perspective.”
Much of last year, they tried unsuccessfully to add to their family. “We lost a couple last year, as well,” he said Sunday night. “It was tough. We thought we were done.”
And then the surprise news, late last fall: They were expecting identical twin girls. Again.
“And when these two little girls get here,” Dan said, grinning, “he’s not gonna have a clue.”
Woodland’s parents have already seen how fatherhood has changed him. “I think he matured 10 years when he had a child,” Linda said. He’s more focused. Able to prioritize his life. “For so many years it was just about golf with him.” Now it’s about tossing Jaxson in the air and wrestling with him on the ground and watching Disney movies with him until they both crash. When he’s on the road, Woodland watches and re-watches the videos Gabby sends from home. On Sunday, they received a clip of Jaxson terrorizing the house, taking every pot and pan out of the cabinet.
“We call him F-5,” Linda said. “The little F-5 tornado.”
Woodland, of course, left his own path of destruction here at Pebble Beach, winning with the second lowest score (13-under 271) in U.S. Open history. It’ll be years before Jaxson fully understands the magnitude of this moment.
Dan Woodland needed no reminding. He stood off to the side of the 18th green, wearing a white Wilson hat and a dazed look. Sure, it was a thrill for Pops to watch Woodland conquer the toughest test in golf. But it was also rewarding to see the man his boy had become.
“He handled it a lot better than I probably would have,” Dan said, blinking back tears as Gary posed for pictures with the U.S. Open trophy.
“I struggle with it. But I think that right now, that little girl is up there in the sky, looking down, saying, ‘Hey, that’s my Daddy.’”